Rationale for free-libre tools

This is to discuss the thread 5 The practical rationale for free-libre tools in coop organising, emerging from the meeting on Shared learning spaces, 15mar2021. The emerging threads are summarised here. Possible participants include: Micky Metts, Keegan Rankin. Maybe Simon Grant, Jonathan Cook? Maybe Robert Best, Mike Gismondi, Matt Noyes? Maybe Marco Fioretti, Jason Nardi?

Hi @freescholar - Is this a good time to kick off this thread? Why do folks find it not obvious to use free-libre apps and platforms? What do they need to be persuaded of? What combination of the following needs to be addressed . .

  • Oh no, not ANOTHER app/interface/browser tab! Not more screen real-estate PLEASE.
  • Ditto, No more lerarning-curve, PLEASE.
  • Everybody I connect with uses <mainstream, corporate platform/app XYZ>
  • Isn’t it less good than branded software? Commercial stuff ‘just works’.
  • In my experience free (free beer) software is less slick, or full-functioned, or is glitchy in some way.
  • What’s that stuff about my metadata being scraped? Why should I worry if I’m not individually identified? Ru telling me there’s a politics I have to engage with? I don’t have headspace for that, way too abstract.
  • Etc?

Others might want to pitch in: @Jonathan @robert.best @MikeG @mnoyes @asimong @jamie

Thanks for the prompt, Mike @mikemh

I’m drawn to refer to my experience with vegans. To set this in context, I regard myself as vegan-friendly but not vegan, and very open-friendly but not open-exclusivist. Non-vegans often have the line “vegan food is so boring/tasteless/unvaried” and sometimes “doesn’t give me the nutrition my body needs”. The second can be a perfectly valid point, only answerable by proper trials which could be evaluated according to a scientific method. The first point is, in my experience, best countered by providing the non-vegan with delicious vegan food, without making a fuss about it. There is no hurry to reveal that it is in fact vegan.

What doesn’t work in my experience is to adopt a critical judgemental attitude. Least helpful of all, a vegan might criticise a vegetarian for not going the whole way, etc., where a more productive approach in my experience is to be supportive and appreciative that they have gone at least part of the way.

Back to FLOSS. Let’s face it, some free software simply is not as good. In my opinion, we (the free software community in general) would best focus on a coordinated approach to improving the less attractive free version so that it is at least as good as the commercial version. The challenge here is not that it is impossible to do – rather, to do it well requires co-ordination and collaboration to an extent that may not come easily to a random individual free software developer. I find that neither surprising nor blameworthy at all, but it does invite focus and attention and development, not of technical skills but of social and collaborative skill and competence.

We can, of course, always make out our moral and principled case for FLOSS, but I’d suggest being careful not to antagonise the very people who would like to move but haven’t yet.

Another approach which I occasionally go on about is a culture of mutual and peer support. If the FLOSS version is somewhat less intuitive, then provide the user with a great support network. I mean end user, not developer, so that doesn’t mean StackOverflow! See the user experience from a non-technical point of view.

I imagine this working best in a kind of tree structure, so that each person in the tree supports just a few people with less experience. That way, no one ‘expert’ would be overwhelmed with help requests. But setting this up … that’s a different question!

Yes, which may perhaps be implemented as shared genres of work practice? So that watch-and-learn happens, and peer-learning has a chance to ‘just happen’?

Somehow, I don’t think either of us has pinpointed a solution to the challenge of getting an entire community/group/team to migrate to another app or platform. Even with the best free-libre tools/platforms, the ‘installed base’ or ‘network effect’ of the status quo is really hard to shift? Who’s going to use, say, Matrix/Element, if ‘everybody’ is in Telegram?

Mike @mikemh I guess you would agree that it isn’t the level of challenge that is amenable to pinpointing a solution in the short term. Yes indeed, we are working with a very hard-to-shift challenge, because of the installed base and network effect issues. But in my experience, there are actually a lot of people, increasing all the time, who are unhappy with using GAFAM – or at least Facebook – and would move over if there were a good alternative. So could we, for the time being, work on the FLOSS culture so that instead of so many people naively thinking “I have a good idea for a solution” they recognise that lots of people have good ideas, and the challenge is coordination and solidarity in the sense of collaboration not competition. Like, before starting to code your wonderful FB alternative (etc. etc.) have a good look around and see if you can collaborate on an existing initiative. Is this feasible?

actually I see a slightly open door here, because there are a lot of end users frustrated with the multiplicity of WhatsApp / Telegram / Signal and they’d rather have one than all three. When we get to a really effective single solution, that might just have a bit of traction. But not yet – not until there is a really really simple and straightforward way of getting onto e.g. Matrix/Element. Too many techies appear to have completely forgotten how simple it needs to be for the average user. Very, very, very simple. The way that GAFAM has successfully designed or bought up well-designed services – that simple. The simplicity that comes from a total dedication to customer service – seeing things fully from the end user’s point of view, as well as their own.

Hello all, and my apologies for answering so late to the invitation to participate in this discussion. Here’s my 2 cents, after a quick read of all comments so far:

  1. of course, simplicity is key. 99.99…% of human beings do not come biologically wired to like “messing” with software in any way, where messing means, for them, literally anything from patching kernel code, to having to click more than 3 buttons when using a new program or social platform. Ignoring this reality is, in my opinion, the main failure or limit of the orthodox way to promote FOSS, from the Gnu Manifesto to the present days.
  2. What I see is that GAFAM continue to win because there is too much dead end action at the software or data portability levels, and too little at the legal/interoperability levels

You can build the best, simplest, most user-friendly replacement of any tool quoted so far here, but unless it is transparently interoperable with Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram etc… it will remain as useless, and unused, as a smartphone that can only call phones of exactly the same brand and model.

It seems to me that the real topic of this thread is free-libre communication tools, not software. If so, data portability is useless here, and software licenses are almost irrelevant, if there is no interoperability.

Ten years ago, everybody could receive notifications by Facebook via standard RSS, and read or post on their Facebook walls from the command line because Facebook had APIs for that. Those RSS and APIs was all was needed to build REAL competitors to Facebook. So Facebook swiftly canceled both. And won, as the fact that they passed from 1 to almost 3 billions of users since them shows. Because everybody was gaslighted into demanding antitrust measures, that are almost useless in this space, or jumped to proudly build tools that only geeks would use, and even if simple would be useless, because you couldn’t talk with them to people who were still on Facebook.

Sorry for the rant. Main point: developing more communication software is a dead end whatever license it has, unless the GAFAMs are not legally forced to let their users FULLY interoperate with it first.

Hi @marco It’s good to be reminded of this classic situation - with us since phone networks began?

At the same time, I’m not sure that everybody always needs to be able to link with everybody all the time. Maybe non-interconneting networks are part of the architecture too. Perhaps ‘the cables in the ground’ is the one infrastructure where interoperability should be legally enforced.

As distinct from adopting protocols, for example. Protocols are an important dimension of interoperability - and maybe don’t always need to be legally enforced? Depends on the domain? - and maybe, situations might evolve? Is SMTP legally enforced?

My wider response, though, is that as I understand it, ‘free libre tools’ is a much wider category than communications. Looking at the ‘toolstack’ model for example, which I hinted at in our excellent meeting back in March, only one or two of the categories of tools are communications, in the sense you’re highlighting. Whereas, the issue of protocols - in some tighter or looser sense - is probably fundamental to all of them. Here’s a wiki lineup on the toolstack. This thread has I think drifted into a narrower focus, and I probably wasn’t sufficiently clear on this in my earlier posting. When I referred to ‘everybody’ for example, i meant not only ‘everybody in the world’ but also ‘everybody inside my organisation’ - which is not a domain of legal enforcement. My slip.

The starting point for this thread was a suggestion by @freescholar and Keegan at Agaric, that running some sessions for coops, on free-libre tools, would be good to do. I feel that’s still the case.

Hi @mikemh ,

yes, all I wrote only applies to digital communication services, and I wrote it specifically because most of the previous comments were about them. In THAT domain:

“[do such protocols] need to be legally enforced?” At this point in history, with the current situation… Hell yes. Nothing less would force GAFAMs to grant real interoperability, and without that, any effort to build new tools is dead before starting, because nobody would make the switch. Email is the exception that confirms the rule exactly because it was already an ubiquitous defacto standard decades before the GAFAMS emerged (and even self-hosted email is in danger, but that is another story)

“I’m not sure that everybody always needs to be able to link with everybody all the time”: OK, but this has nothing, nothing at all to do with what I am saying, which is:

  1. what is needed is freedom to use , in ANY dgital communication SERVICE, or ACTIVITY, (i.e. instant messaging, clubhouse-like audio chat, video calls, microblogging, whatever) the digital interface or platform that you prefer, for communicating with everybody else, no matter what digital interface or platform THEY prefer, just as it happens with email.
  2. the obsession with software, software source code, software licenses… has been actively harming that goal for at least a decade now

I have already written tons of stuff on the same theme, so I will just post some links and unless explicitly asked stop here, promised: